Photography: burtonwood + holmes
For many photographers, the ultimate goal is see their images not on websites or even in magazines but on walls. And ideally, those walls will be in galleries, and carry next to each photograph a label, a large price tag, and a red dot indicating that the image has been sold.
Of course, that’s not easy. Galleries are choosy and the art market is small. Getting shown involves lots of phone calls, a rich portfolio and an ability to cope with rejection. But there are alternatives for photographers who want both to create art and generate income from it.
Art fairs take place around the country and invite applications from anyone who considers themselves an artist and has a selection of works to sell. Applicants may have to go through a selection process — places are always limited even if the entry criteria aren’t — but that just means that the quality of the other works on offer would be high and that you’d be in good company.
The Evergreen Fine Arts Festival in Colorado, for example, receives up to 500 applications for the 110 booths available. Jewelers and photographers, however, make up almost half of those applicants and only one in nine photographers is accepted.
“It’s not really rejection,” explains Shawn Janecek, the Festival Coordinator, “the artists are all very good; it’s a space thing. They have to rate really high.”
For artists who are accepted though, the rewards can be substantial. A post-show survey of artists who took part in the Napa Valley Wine and Crafts Faire last year found that the average take was between $1,500 and $2,000 but photographers have reported sales as high as $10,000 from a single fair. Set against those revenues though are the cost of travel, the expenses involved in producing the images, and the stall fees which tend to be in the region of $150 (although they can go as low as $35 and as high as $1,000 or more).
Exhibitors also need a tent with a display wall and bins to allow buyers to browse their work. Some photos will need to be framed, and the matting and mounting must be strong enough to cope with thousands of sticky fingers poring over them in the course of a few days.
The most important requirement for a photographer considering offering works at art fairs though is a good selection of images. Shawn Janacek notes that the jury at the Evergreen Fine Arts Festival looks for variety so that the fair offers its visitors a wide range of different subjects.
“[I]f everyone had landscapes or animals it would be very boring, so we look at all the entries and pick the best in different venues, portals, landscapes, European cities, digital-enhanced, animal, black and white, large pieces, small pieces,” she says. “We look for everything and then choose.”
For contributors to the Napa Valley Wine and Crafts Faire, things are a little easier. According to Craig Smith, a spokesman for the event, all things wine and wine-related usually do well.
The images then will need to match both the fair and the market so it’s worth taking the time to understand exactly what the event is trying to do and who it’s aimed at. In practice, that’s easier to research than it sounds. Exhibitors are unlikely to travel too far in the hope of earning a couple of thousand dollars, minus expenses, so they’re likely to be local artists targeting local events that they already know relatively well.
One strategy that does seem to be universal though is having a good spread of prices. Making sure that your stall offers high-priced framed prints as well as low-cost items that fit any budget will mean that you’re not sitting around all day hoping to make just one big sale.
“Some folks bring multiple-sized prints and postcards so they can capture the person wanting to spend only $20 as well as the one spending $600,” says Craig Smith.
And then there’s the prize money. Juried events, like the Evergreen Fine Arts Festival, in which artists’ works are judged by a panel may also have cash prizes. While that’s not something you’d want to count on, the kudos of having a work named “Best in Show” can certainly provide a powerful boost to a sales price and to an artist’s reputation.
Most importantly, it shows that you can sell images — and that incidentally, is exactly what gallery owners are looking for too. Instead of hitting the phones and trying to make appointments to show off your portfolio then, you might be better off submitting applications to local art fairs, selling some works, pocketing some cash… and then showing gallery owners what will happen when your work is on their walls too.